100 years of Scandinavian design on display at the Milwaukee Museum of Art this spring

In the spring of 2023, the Milwaukee Art Museum will present Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890-1980, the first exhibition to examine the vast design exchanges between the United States and the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland , Norway and Sweden during the 20th century.

The exhibition offers an alternative to the mainstream narrative that cites Germany and Central Europe as the main influences of modern American design, presents new research on the crucial impact that Scandinavia and the United States have had on culture material on the other, and examines topical themes such as the contributions of immigrants in their adopted societies, the importance of international exchange, the role of cultural myths, and design for sustainability and accessibility.

Co-curated by Monica Obniski, former Demmer Curator of 20th and 21st Century Design at the Milwaukee Art Museum, now Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the High Museum of Art, and Bobbye Tigerman, Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross Curator, Decorative Arts and Design at LACMA, Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890-1980 will be presented from March 24 to July 23, 2023, in its last stop after an international tour.

Spanning from the arrival of Nordic immigrants in the United States in the late 19th century to the ecological and socially responsible design projects of the 1960s and 1970s, the exhibit features more than 180 objects, including furniture, textiles, decorative arts, designs, ceramics, jewellery. , glass and product designs that reflect the far-reaching effects of Scandinavian and American cultural exchange. It also features books, magazines, and other printed materials—from the extensive collections of the Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center—that demonstrate the popularity of Scandinavian designs and aesthetic sensibilities in mainstream American culture. The presentation offers visitors a deep dive into the lasting impact of Scandinavian designers who immigrated to the United States and American designers who studied and worked in the Nordic countries, the strategic marketing campaigns around Scandinavian products that targeted consumers Americans, and American and Nordic personalities who championed sustainable and accessible design.

“Through this exhibition, Bobbye Tigerman and I have sought to expand the accepted canon of American design history and to provide visitors with a better understanding of design exchanges and craft collaborations between the United States and the Nordic countries and how these transnational exchanges have impacted American material life,” said Monica Obniski. “Our hope is that by engaging with the wide range of artifacts and accompanying research presented, viewers will gain new perspectives and insights into topics that remain central today, including the rich contributions of immigrants to American culture, the need to analyze the myths and stereotypes often embedded in advertising, and the critical importance of environmentally sustainable and universally accessible products.”

“The Milwaukee Art Museum is thrilled to have collaborated with LACMA to bring to life this comprehensive exhibit that traces the historical impact of a century of cross-cultural design exchange between the United States and Scandinavia,” said Marcelle Polednik. , director of Donna and Donald Baumgartner of Milwaukee. Art Museum. “We are thrilled to bring this presentation to Milwaukee to engage with the people of the city and region, whose own cultural heritage reflects the profound impact of Nordic creativity and innovation.”

Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890-1980 is co-organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Milwaukee Art Museum in collaboration with the Nationalmuseum Sweden and the Nasjonalmuseet in Norway.

Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890-1980 is divided into six thematic sections: Migration and Heritage, Selling the Scandinavian Dream, Design for Diplomacy, Teachers and Students, Foreign Travel, and Design for Social Change.

The first section, Migration and Heritage, explores how Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants made myriad impactful contributions to the artistic and cultural life of their adopted communities. For example, around 1930, Swedish-born artist Lillian Holm immigrated to Detroit, where she worked as a weaver and an influential teacher at several Michigan art schools. His hanging First Sight of New York (circa 1930) reflects his wonder at seeing the towering skyscrapers and dense crowds of the metropolis.

Selling the Scandinavian Dream examines the marketing strategy that applied an “American Dream” parallel to Scandinavia to convince Americans that consumer capitalism leads to class mobility and a better quality of life and how this exploited stereotypes and myths about the northern region and people. This is illustrated by the colorful tableware produced by the Dansk company. For many Americans, Dansk’s enameled steel and carved teak products represent the epitome of Scandinavian design; However, Dansk is an American company, founded by a New York entrepreneur in collaboration with Danish designer Jens H. Quistgaard. Through strategic marketing (Dansk translates to “Danish”), Dansk effectively capitalized on Americans’ admiration for Scandinavian design and yearning for symbolized Scandinavian culture.

Design for Diplomacy examines how nations have long used design and architecture to advance their political goals through the “soft power” of cultural propaganda, such as national pavilions at world’s fairs, traveling museum exhibits at the scale and the construction of diplomatic architecture such as embassies. An example of Scandinavian “soft power” through design came during the Cold War, when Scandinavian countries sought to align themselves with the democratic, capitalist side of the Cold War divide by appealing to American tastes and associating their products with the values ​​of freedom, democracy and openness. Another example is perhaps the most significant manifestation of international diplomacy after the Second World War: the headquarters of the United Nations (1946-1952), built in New York as a place for the peaceful gathering of nations, for which Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were asked to design the three largest meeting rooms. Swedish designer Marianne Richter’s vibrant tapestry curtain (circa 1951) formed the focal point of Sweden’s contribution, the Council Chamber for Economic and Social Affairs. He enlivened the neutral-toned modernist space, adding a touch of warmth to support the Council’s diplomatic and humanitarian mission.

Teachers and Students traces how Scandinavian designers and artisans who taught in American schools ultimately shaped the course of American design. One center of influence was the Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit, Michigan, where Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen was hired to design both the physical campus and the educational structure. Saarinen, father of Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, who designed the modern civic masterpiece of the War Memorial Center on the campus of the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed the Academy plan and major buildings as depicted in his “Cranbrook Map” hanging (1935). He also hired leading Nordic artists as teachers, including ceramicist Maija Grotell, sculptor Carl Milles and weaver Marianne Strengell – all of their work is also featured in this section of the exhibition – who in turn attracted towards the promising institution of American design and architecture. students, including Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Ed Rossbach and Toshiko Takaezu.

Travel Abroad illustrates how cultural exchange between the Nordic countries and the United States has been supported by travel grants, formal university programs and apprenticeships. This cross-cultural exchange is exemplified by the textile print (circa 1978) of Howard Smith, an African-American artist who moved to Finland to escape systemic racism and lack of professional opportunities in the United States. Created for the Finnish company Vallila, Smith’s textile achieved widespread popularity as home decoration and was exported to the United States.

The final section, Design for Social Change, explores how the turbulent social and political conditions of the late 1960s prompted some designers to think critically about their work, to envision a new role for design within society and to think about how design could solve systemic problems, including the planet. dwindling resources, overconsumption and excessive waste, security and physical barriers to access. Swedish designers such as Maria Benktzon and Sven-Eric Juhlin created household products based on ergonomic research, while American designer Niels Diffrient worked with a team from industrial design firm Henry Dreyfuss Associates to publish Humanscale (1974) , an ergonomic design guide that represented a range of body types, including wheelchair users, rather than focusing narrowly on able-bodied and average-height users. The concern of contemporary designers to meet pressing global needs and solve endemic problems reflects and continues the legacy of design criticism that emerged from the United States and the Nordic countries.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog edited by Monica Obniski and Bobbye Tigerman, designed by Lorraine Wild and Xiaoqing Wang of Green Dragon Studio. Wild is an alumnus of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and her educational experiences there informed the design of the book. Contributors include Glenn Adamson, Arndís Árnadóttir, Charlotte Ashby, Graham C. Boettcher, Danielle Charlap, Kjetil Fallan, Diana Jocelyn Greenwold, Denise Hagströmer, Helena Kåberg, Alexandra Lange, Cara McCarty, Monica Penick, Hannah Pivo, Rosanne Somerson and Erica Warren .

Mildred D. Field